SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER EXPANDED RELEASE REVIEWED
It was a late August evening in 1993. I was laying in my old bed in my parents’ house, my first summer after a year of studying Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had a Discman at my side, Koss headphones plugged in, and the newest James Horner soundtrack ready to spin for the first time. I’d been listening to soundtracks for about 3 years now, and it was kinda “my thing”. I had a few composers I was “into”, and one of them was James Horner. I’d enjoyed his music to Field of Dreams, Glory, Willow, Star Trek II and III. I was on the fence about his recent score to Patriot Games. The World Wide Web didn’t exist yet, so I had no access to what would eventually become a thriving online community of soundtrack aficionados, and little awareness of how deep this rabbit hole might eventually go. My father, at the dinner table a few nights previous, had mentioned that he heard on the radio a blurb about the soundtrack for the new film, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and its composer was James Horner—the same composer he’d heard me mention numerous times. I drove down to the Wherehouse (a now defunct record franchise) and secured a copy. I was about to listen to it for the first time.
The main title track was pleasant: an ethereal bed of strings, a pensive theme on woodwinds and horn, and a sing-song intertwining of tinkling piano. This was mellow James Horner, something I might easily fall asleep to. The second track—I opened my eyes. The opening evoked a sense of wonder, dove into a gently propulsive rhythm, and a new floating theme arose. I felt… musically untethered. A momentary breather back into what felt like a possible denouement, and then… seemingly out of nowhere, a key change, and the floating theme suddenly soared. Despite my burgeoning familiarity with the magic of film music, I’d never heard or felt anything like this before. I sat straight up in my bed, and pressed the back button and listened to it unfold again. And again. It was then, in that dark room on that late summer night, that I knew I’d have to track down every note James Horner wrote or would write. And I hadn’t even got to track 10, Josh and Vinnie!
In the intervening years, I’ve come closer and closer to achieving that desire. The last 6 years have seen a resurgence in re-releasing and expanding scores Horner wrote decades ago, fulfilling famous Holy Grail searches (House of Cards, Something wicked This Way Comes, The Journey of Natty Gann, all in 2009, to name a few) and fleshing out nooks and crannies of Horner musical minutiae few even knew existed (the release of the TV movie, Rascals and Robbers, expanded scores to Cocoon, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and Commando, for example) . The latest expansion of the universe of James Horner’s music is a fresh look at the very score that originally sealed the deal for me: an expanded and re-mastered release of the music from Searching for Bobby Fischer.
The film, released in August 1993, features Bobby Fischer only in stock footage and voiceovers from the child protagonist, who finds himself living in Fischer’s shadow. Bobby Fischer had taken the chess world by storm with ruthless, unconventional, even contemptuous mastery of the game, defeated the indomitable Russian chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and then disappeared. The world held its breath awaiting his return, or anticipating the next prodigy to usurp his empty throne. Seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin was a young talent that many burdened with the expectation that he was the natural pretender. The film, based on the book of the same title written by Josh’s father, follows Josh’s early developments, the pressures he faced to follow in Fischer’s footsteps, and a conflict with another young ruthless player that pits Josh’s brilliance and innocence against the very facets of Fischer’s game that might unravel the fabric of goodness that makes Josh the worthiest of adversaries. James Horner’s score features themes and motifs that intelligently support and parallel the drama and its ultimate resolution.
The original soundtrack release for Searching for Bobby Fischer was published in 1993 by Big Screen Records, who also released Horner’s scores to Bopha! and the The Pelican Brief. The label didn’t produce albums for very long, and these titles went out of print rather quickly. For many years, this Horner gem was out of reach for the casual listener. La-La Land Records recently acquired the rights to much of Big Screen’s catalog, and that acquisition bears fruit with this gorgeous and lavishly produced release.
The film itself contained 58 minutes of original underscore, and the original album featured 50 minutes of music, 6 minutes of which weren’t featured in the film at all (Trip to Chicago and The Castle), and another 11.5 minutes that differed slightly from what was presented in the film.
This new La-La Land release features 15 minutes (7 tracks) of completely new music from the film, plus 25 minutes (8 tracks) of alternate versions of music that was on the original soundtrack album, and 3 minutes (2 tracks) of alternate versions of music that was presented for the first time on this disc. The musical selections completely fill out the 78-minute disc, and in order to do so, they had to drop a few pieces of music from the original album release—namely, Trip to Chicago and the album versions of Early Victories and Final Tournament. The film versions presented in this release are close enough that only a completist would miss the album versions here. Trip to Chicago, which did not appear in the film, revisits material heard previously in Josh vs. Dad. It’s sufficiently unique a piece, though, that its omission is noticeable, though I think listeners will be happy with the producers’ decision to sacrifice it in favor of the new material they’ve introduced in its place.
The music is presented in a “Complete and Chronological” format: first, all of the music heard in the film, in the order it appeared in the film; then, a selection of bonus tracks—cues for scenes that were cut from the film or alternate approaches to existing scenes, featuring different orchestrations, or often using entirely different themes, lending a different feel to the scenes they supported but which the director ultimately didn’t feel was quite right. Complete and Chronological presentations often suffer from theme fatigue and a distinct lack of flow, as very minor moments not originally deemed worthy for an album inclusion queue up in an endless parade of short tracks without much structure. Shorter album releases are curated and reordered for the best overall listening experience in a single sitting. As an example, Early Victories, the tenth selection in the expanded release, is presented second on the original album—a fitting choice, as it grabbed me immediately after the introductory track with a nuanced but robust presentation of all the major themes in a transformative moment that utterly engaged my ear for the duration of the album that followed. If I had to listen to 30 minutes of score before reaching that musical revelation, it might have been lost on me, and the album as a whole would suffer.
Though Horner only employed three significant themes for this film, this Complete and Chronological presentation doesn’t suffer the usual fatigue and lack of structure. There is enough variation of orchestration, tempo, time signature, and non-thematic bridging material to make each piece stand out, and the narrative flow that arises from its parallel to the film works well as a listening experience.
Not uncommon for commercial soundtrack releases, the original album liner notes are extremely sparse, featuring a track listing and a few stills from the film. The La-La Land liner notes are authored by film composer and professor of music composition, Brian Satterwhite, offering a very technical and in-depth review of each and every track on the disc. His erudite insights illuminate not only the technical compositional choices that colored Horner’s unique approach to musical storytelling, but also help us connect the music to the story on screen. Satterwhite’s notes highlight the orchestration choices, dissect what structurally comprise various “Hornerisms” (brushstrokes that we’ve seen on the composer’s other musical canvases), explore modes and keys that set certain emotional templates, and provide a strong correlation of musical theme to narrative theme in a way that sheds light on some very subtle things Horner was doing to support not just the on-screen action, but the deeper character-oriented meaning of each passing moment.
Satterwhite points out that there are three predominant themes throughout the film: a lonely theme that represents the shadow of Bobby Fischer, a sweet theme that represents Josh’s inner goodness, tinged with its own blazing brilliance, and a set of “chess chords” that represent the wonder and awe and mystique of the game itself. The analysis of each cue is careful to point out why we might hear the Fischer theme versus Josh’s theme in certain scenes as Josh wrestles with his own identity and mastering the way he wants to play the game, as opposed to how the adults in his world expect him to play in Fischer’s footsteps. There is an adversary in the latter acts of the film, young Jonathan Poe, to whom the Fischer theme is eventually transferred after Josh has finally broken free of Fischer’s claim over his path (a pivotal moment in the exhilarating Josh and Vinnie).
I found Satterwhite’s notes to be among the most enlightening liner notes I’ve read for a collector’s release. However, I did observe that there are certain things I love about this soundtrack that didn’t make his notes. As astutely as he points out what instruments play what, there are gorgeous moments in Final Tournament that feature intricate glockenspiel that weren’t mentioned at all. Also, the most magical iterations of the chess chords throughout the score are complimented by a top layer of glass harp (which Horner originally employed in Field of Dreams), which goes unmentioned in the notes. Finally, while Satterwhite does a commendable job pulling out the themes and their meaning to the narrative, some of the notes fail the elation and beauty of the most revelatory moments in the music. Most notably, the best statements of Josh’s theme are soaring, unbound statements of sweet exuberance, as found first in Early Victories (the very composition I described earlier that first hooked me on Horner’s music), and finally in Josh and Vinnie: a compositional coup-de-grace that explores rhythms and tempos by shifting through wider and wider time signatures to accommodate more notes per measure, an effect that both offers a driving acceleration while the underlying flow finds deeper and deeper footing: the effect of speeding up and slowing down creates the sense of unstoppable momentum, preceding an exultant and inevitable blooming of Josh’s theme in its greatest sense of promise and uncompromised hope.
I felt these omissions most strongly, of course, simply because of my own intimate familiarity with this score over the decades. On the whole, the liner notes are well-informed and an indispensable companion for understanding just what an achievement of underscoring this composition represents.
The re-released and new material was re-mastered from 2-track digital sources vaulted by Paramount and is a significant improvement in sound clarity from the original release. The 1993 album already exercised the limits of dynamic range afforded by the compact disc format, with deep, rich base in low piano chords and pedal notes, and subtle, high clarinet, flute, tinkling piano, glass harp, and glockenspiel: a deep range of subsonic undercurrents and soft, sweet melodies right on top. What this new mastering provides is an airier, crisper presentation of the highs, and clearer attack of forte piano notes. The tinkling piano is… “tinklier”, the glass harp has more breath. There’s more room for the music to unfold, without ceiling.
Many Complete and Chronological releases unfold over two discs, allowing for: a) more never-before-released music; and, b) a presentation of the original album in its original sequence, and in its re-mastered glory. There is significant debate on the value of the practice of the latter point. Many feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for an extra disc that duplicates what they may have already bought years ago or which they could replicate by programming a selective play list of the Complete & Chronological presentation. This, however, is a release that I definitely feel could have benefited from a 2-disc release. Producer Dan Goldwasser notes that they had more music than they could fit on the disc and had to present the selections they felt best represented the variety of alternates available. Also, they truncated track 27, the alternate opening of Josh and Vinnie without allowing that opening to flow into its ultimate, exultant conclusion. The album versions of many cues aren’t afforded room here, and for the completist, there is about 15 minutes from the original album not exactly duplicated here, and therefore unavailable to the collector in its re-mastered audio quality. A small quandary: it’s not unusual for a fan to love a good thing, but then want more!
All in all, this is a stellar release. Searching for Bobby Fischer is a score of innocence and identity in an arcane world inhabited by children whose intellect far exceeds most of the adults around them but whose purity of heart is at stake in every gambit and endgame. James Horner’s music is a tapestry of awe, wonder, anticipation, genius, exhilaration, heart-breaking disappointment and triumph of the will and the soul. It bears the hallmarks of many musical tropes that Horner would revisit in some of his better known later scores and still, decades later, maintains a deep and abiding freshness of spirit. The re-mastering gives the score a limitless vault to soar when it flies, and room to breathe when it’s most intimate. The extra material fills in the narrative gaps left open by the shorter album release, and the alternate versions exemplify exactly how subtle changes deeply affect the mood and tone of a moment on screen. Satterwhite’s notes are expertly insightful and a facile guide into Horner’s craft of underscoring nuanced drama. If you missed the original release of this subtle gem, this is your opportunity to rectify the omission in your collection. If you’re already a student of this score, your experience with Horner’s masterful composition for this intimate and hopeful film will be very well served with this limited opportunity to revisit the work through the dedicated handiwork of our friends at La-La Land Records.
Many thanks to Matt Verboys, for giving us the opportunity to write this article in the best possible conditions.
Photo credit: © Paramount Pictures
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